In October 2015, the Arc of Minnesota honored Wilbur Neushwander-Frink ’00 with a Professional of the Year award. Her bio, in part, read: “Wherever self-advocacy is happening, Wilbur is near.”
It’s true. When laid out together, the list of activities and organizations Neushwander-Frink is involved in is remarkable. The 56-year-old is a community organizer at the Arc of Minnesota Southwest, works as a volunteer coordinator at Pathstone Living, and leads two theater groups for people with disabilities—The United We Stand Players in New Ulm and Aktion Club in Mankato. She’s involved in the Miracle League, Feeding Our Communities Partners’ BackPack Food Program and the Good Thunder Reading Series, to name just a few.
Boil it down, though, and Neushwander-Frink’s real strength, regardless of the activity, organization or platform, is giving a voice and a place at the table to a group of people who have often been overlooked.
“That is just the essential element of Wilbur,” says Melinda Wedzina, former executive director of Feeding Our Communities Partners and a friend and colleague of Neushwander-Frink’s. “It’s what drives her every day, to be able to help people have a voice and be heard in whatever form that takes. Whether it’s theater or speaking out at a community-organized event, she’s very much about the power of story and the power of the voice behind the story.”
And that is why Wedzina nominated her for the prestigious Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero award, which Neushwander-Frink won last fall.
Following Her Compass
Neushwander-Frink’s story begins in Plainfield, Ill., a small town about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. Both her parents were orphans and children of the depression. They were practical people. They didn’t volunteer or get too involved in the community. It just wasn’t their way. From the time she was a little girl, however, Neushwander-Frink felt a strong desire to get involved and to help. The way she describes it, the needle of her compass—her true north—always pointed toward serving the underserved and making a difference in the world around her.
By the time she entered high school, she was beginning to flex her volunteer muscles at church and in the community. It was about this time that an incident at school ignited her passion for advocacy in the disability community.
It was the 1970s, and students with disabilities were being mainstreamed into Neushwander-Frink’s high school.
“The kids [with disabilities] weren’t able to go about in the hallway like all the other kids, they had to be in a line,” she says. “I remember these kids walking in this line and I remember standing at my locker. My fellow classmates in the hallway were making fun of and pushing some of the kids and I just couldn’t take it.”
Neushwander-Frink called the bullies out—and she took some heat for it. “Kids started making fun of me too, but it didn’t hinder me from being the person I was. That day my eyes were open and I was like, ‘What is going on here?’”
After high school, Neushwander-Frink felt a pull towards ministry but opted instead to follow her parents’ advice. She became a nurse and, over the next 30 years, practiced in a variety of settings and locations—including a stint in New York where she lived the artist’s loft life with her painter husband, Brian.
In 1990, she moved to Mankato, where Brian had joined Minnesota State Mankato’s Art Department in 1989 (he now serves as chair). Neushwander-Frink worked briefly for Abbot Northwestern, then took what would become her last job in nursing with a New Ulm residential provider, MBW Company.
MBW has a long history of serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and supporting Minnesota’s self-advocacy movement. For Neushwander-Frink, it was where her true north began to intersect with her vocation.
“Though my parents chose what I was going to do, I think there was some wisdom there,” she says. “In the long arc of my career it really led me to the discovery of how I can best use my own personal gifts in the world.”
In 1995, Neushwander-Frink decided to enter Minnesota State Mankato’s Educational Leadership master’s program, from which she graduated in 2000. “I cannot say enough for my master’s education at Minnesota State Mankato,” she says. “It was fabulous and it really helped transform the way I practice as an ally in the self-advocacy movement.”
Neushwander-Frink’s work in self-advocacy has led her down paths she couldn’t have imagined when she began 22 years ago. For one, while she always enjoyed theater and writing, she couldn’t have pictured herself as a director and playwright.
“When I started working with People First of New Ulm, they seemed to see something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” she says.
The group asked her to help them put together a presentation to share with legislators, and she was game. “I wrote a little performance, the history of people with disabilities. Then the group said, ‘We’d really like to do a play.’”
Neushwander-Frink is now finishing her 11th full-length play. Her work in social justice theater is among her most profound contributions to the self-advocacy movement, and what she considers her biggest legacy as an ally.
“It’s been so rewarding,” she says. “When [people] first join the theater group their heads are down and they don’t feel confident about themselves, but as we begin what we call nurturing and watering the seeds of their soul, that’s when you see people begin to blossom and to really discover who they are beyond any label society puts upon them. It’s just been really incredible to stand back and see that happen.”
Of course, it’s had its challenges, but just as teenage Wilbur didn’t back down in the face of bullying, Neushwander-Frink is determined to keep moving forward. She’s decided to embark on her next big idea this year: a non-profit centered on inclusive arts. The way she sees it, it will be a place where artists of all backgrounds and abilities are supported and safe to explore everything from theater to dance to creative writing.
It’s a big venture, to be sure, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone more qualified, passionate or experienced than Neushwander-Frink. And the well-loved and respected ally, volunteer and community leader is sure to have an abundance of support along the way.
“Wilbur is very futuristic and visionary; she can see the bigger picture before any of us even have an idea we need to look in that direction,” says Wedzina. “She has built such an army of admirers and followers that she will have no trouble finding any help or resources she needs as she gets this set up. The stars are aligned and her track record is impeccable. It just feels like it’s the right next move.” —Sarah Asp Olson